THE RISK WAS OBVIOUS TO A CHILD
At least until Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton began vying for votes in the general election, tort law was cited as the best evidence for the demise of the Republic. You know the folklore about the McDonald’s coffee case (which in reality, wasn’t so outrageous after all) and the phony “view with alarm” e-mails that circulate about absolutely fictitious decisions.
But truth be told, most tort law decisions aren’t nearly as outrageous as its would-be reformers would have us believe. Take today’s case. Some boys were playing at a school playground, and decided to raid oranges from a neighbor’s tree. After they had gotten all the low-hanging fruit, one of them stuck his bicycle handlebars in the chain link fence, climbed up his makeshift ladder, and reached across the fence. Naturally, the bike came loose from the fence and he fell, cutting himself on the sharp tines on top of the fence.
The boy sued the school district for maintaining a dangerous fence. The only outrage was that his lawyer decided to sue at all. The fact that no one had ever been hurt on the fence in 16 years didn’t matter. The boy’s attorney argued that it was reasonably foreseeable that young boys would be attracted to oranges adjacent to the fence and would use the fence (whether by climbing or using a bicycle or other means to fashion a ladder) to enable them to reach the fruit. The Court said ‘nonsense’.
Chain link fences are ubiquitous, the Court said, but not even kids — who are held to lower standards than adults — would think that it was a reasonable use of the property to thread bicycle handlebars through the links to make an impromptu ladder. The dangerous condition of property should be defined in terms of the manner in which it is foreseeable that the property will be used by persons exercising due care. After all, the Court said, any property can be dangerous if used in a sufficiently abnormal manner.
This decision would be refreshing were it not so commonplace. Less than 5 percent of all civil cases are torts, and only about 4 percent of those go to trial. Recent statistics show that plaintiffs only win about half of the trials, and only half of those winners get more than $24,000 in damages. Most tort lawsuits are losers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, tort law does not always come with a leprechaun and a pot of gold.
Biscotti v. Yuba City Unified School Dist., 158 Cal.App.4th 554 ( 2007). Nine-year-old Christian Biscotti and his friends were riding bicycles on the grounds of a public school. The boys decided to pick oranges from a tree located in a neighbor’s yard, which was separated from the school’s grounds by a metal chain link fence. The fence, installed when the school was built in 1959, had metal prongs across its top edge. After the boys had picked all the oranges they could reach from the ground, Christian placed a bicycle next to the chain link fence, poking one handlebar through an opening in the fence to help stabilize the bicycle. He then climbed up and stood on the bicycle, balancing himself with one foot on its seat and his other foot on the bar. While Christian reached over the fence and yanked on an orange, the bicycle slipped and he fell onto the fence. His left arm struck the metal tines and was cut.
For at least 16 years prior to the accident, there had been no reported complaints about the safety of the fence and no reported accidents or injuries related to it. That didn’t keep Christian from suing Yuba City Unified School District, which promptly won on summary judgment. Christian appealed.
Held: The school district was not liable. In California, public entity liability for personal injury — governed by statute — is imposed for injuries caused by a dangerous condition of public property where a plaintiff establishes that the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury, that the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition, that the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury which was incurred, and that the public entity had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition. A “dangerous condition” of public property is a condition of property that creates a substantial risk of injury when the property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used. The intent of these statutes, the Court said, is to impose liability only when there is a substantial danger which is not apparent to those using the property in a reasonably foreseeable manner with due care.
The Court held that Christian failed to raise an issue of material fact as to whether the school district maintained a dangerous condition on its property. The Court said that the risk of falling and being seriously injured would be obvious even to a nine-year-old boy at the time Christian poked the handlebar of his bicycle into an opening in the chain link fence, climbed onto the bicycle, balanced himself with one foot on the seat and his other foot on the bar, and reached over the fence to pick an orange from a tree on the adjacent property. While unfortunate, the injury that resulted when the readily apparent risk of falling became a reality is not compensable. The undisputed facts established that Christian was not using the fence with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable that it will be used.
The lesson the boy learned, the Court observed, is that tort law did not protect him from the consequence of his careless decision.